10 questions with UN Special Envoy for the Ocean- Ambassador Peter Thomson


Ahead of the United Nations Ocean Conference, we check in with the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean.

1. The rallying cry of the UN Ocean Conference is “Save our Ocean, Protect our Future”. What does this theme mean to you?

Answer: You may have heard my daily mantra, “No healthy planet without a healthy ocean, and the ocean’s health is measurably in decline.” So what that rallying cry means for me is that we have work to do to reverse the decline. Let’s get to it.

2. The Conference will focus on scaling up science and innovation to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 14 on life below water. How are we doing on SDG 14, and how are we leveraging science and innovation?

Answer: SDG 14 seeks to conserve and sustainably use the ocean’s resources. We are making reasonable progress on conserving the ocean, and I’m very hopeful that Convention on Biological Diversity COP 15 will adopt the proposed 30 by 30 target later this year. We are doing less well on sustainable use, and there are some sectors that have big plans to open up new areas of unsustainable ocean activity. If we truly desire sustainability, future decisions on the use of ocean resources should be based on climate-smart marine spatial planning, on the precautionary principle, and on sound ocean science, which is why Member States mandated the UN Decade of Ocean Science that is currently underway.

3. What are the main issues on the agenda at the Ocean Conference? Why should people pay attention?

Answer: The UN Ocean Conferences are held in support of SDG 14, so the main issues are the 10 targets of the goal — ranging from marine pollution through to the implementation of international law. UN Member States have chosen a theme for the conference that rests on scaling up ocean action, stocktaking, science, innovation, partnerships, and most importantly, solutions. People should pay attention if they care about the ocean’s health.

4. What do you hope will come out of Lisbon? What does a successful outcome look like in your eyes?

Answer: I hope to witness the launching of a great fleet of science-based, innovative solutions to the ocean’s challenges. With these, in the next few years we will work our way towards reversing the decline of the ocean’s health.

5. The Conference was delayed from 2020 because of COVID-19, and the pandemic response has resulted in even more trash entering the ocean. Overall, how has the pandemic impacted progress and the momentum for ocean action?

Answer: A whole new class of plastic pollution — PPEs (personal protective equipment) — has entered the flood of plastic we dump in the ocean. Were it not for the lighting of hope in Nairobi at UNEA (the UN Environment Assembly) this year, with a resolution to create an internationally-binding treaty to control plastic pollution, by 2050 we would have more plastic in the ocean than fish. Make no mistake, we have unleashed a plastic plague upon nature, and it is time for us to desist.

6. Speaking of the pandemic, can you talk about the role the ocean plays in human health and well-being?

Answer: Apart from the fact that 50 percent of the planet’s oxygen is produced in the ocean, the ocean provides healthy nutrition to billions of people. In terms of the transition to renewable energy, the ocean will supply us all the energy we need through offshore wind and wave and tidal power. Likewise, the decarbonisation of global shipping through transition to green hydrogen will have huge benefits for human health. New forms of food will emerge from a more sustainable approach to sourcing aquatic nutrition, through such things as algae and truly sustainable aquaculture.

7. What role does the ocean, and the Conference, play in addressing the climate and biodiversity crises?

Answer: The connection between the ocean and climate change is inseparable. The ocean is the planet’s biggest carbon sink, and it has absorbed more than 90 percent of the excess heat attributed to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Ocean acidification rates, whereby CO2 dissolves into seawater, are presently occurring at approximately 10 times faster than anything we’ve experienced in the last 300 million years. The effects of this process on marine ecosystems like coral reefs are devastating, which is a serious worry for the future of marine biodiversity since coral reefs are home to an estimated 25 percent of all marine life. Addressing this connectivity means tackling the problem at source, and that means getting our greenhouse gas emissions down to acceptable levels, which principally means, ceasing the use of fossil fuels for our energy requirements. It can be done.

8. What keeps you up at night when it comes to ocean health?

Answer: What bothers me the most is that the majority of us continue to live as if our actions have no consequences for those who are coming after us. On the basis of humanity’s current pathway, we are bound for a world of between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius global warming this century. That is within the lives of our children and grandchildren, and that is a world of fire, famine, flood and pandemics. Intergenerational justice demands that we make the necessary transitions now.

9. What makes you optimistic that the world can come together to solve these problems? Where have we made the most progress?

Answer: I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I believe we must instead be hard-headed pragmatists and do the right thing for the common good. We all know what that means: dedication, sacrifice and equity must overcome apathy and greed. Progress and prosperity will arise from that.

10. Finally, can you share a favourite memory or experience involving the ocean?

Answer: Certainly not the hundreds of times I’ve been sea-sick. I think it would revolve around the blissful beachside times with family and friends, swimming, diving, snorkelling, sailing, surfing and teaching the little ones to swim. I hope to be doing all that with them back in Fiji this October.